The cultivation of date palms is as old as civilization itself. People from Ancient Egypt to modern Mexico have grown date palms for their nutritional and health-promoting properties, establishing the plant as the linchpin of desert and pre-desert agricultural systems. Now, Naturalia Ingredients is pairing traditional knowledge of date palms with modern production processes to extract natural sugars from the fruit.
Naturalia’s work with date palms builds on a rich, long history. People in Mesopotamia cultivated dates as a staple crop 7,000 years ago.1 Excavations suggest dates were grown in Egypt around the same time. The location and timing of these activities put the date palm at the heart of humanity’s move between nomadic and farming cultures. That move spawned civilization. Evidence of the first libraries comes from around the same place and time as that of early date palm cultivation.
The attributes that made date palms popular with these early farmers have enabled it to spread around the world. Date palms moved west into North Africa and east into modern-day India, both through deliberate expansion of cultivation and as a result of soldiers, traders and migrants taking the high-energy fruit with them on long journeys and discarding the seeds after eating the flesh.
More recently, explorers, traders and missionaries took dates across oceans, enabling the plant to spread beyond Eurasia and into the Americas. Again, the nutritional value of the fruit explains both why dates were taken on these journeys and why the plant was adopted by people in the new places. The date palm’s hardiness, particularly its ability to survive wide ranges of temperatures and grow in marginal soils, has also helped it to spread.
The consequence of this series of expansions is that global date production exceeded 7.6 million tonnes in 2014.2 That output was achieved from date palms planted across 1.1 million hectares of land. As the numbers show, date palms remain an important plant commercially and nutritionally for many people and communities.
In recent years, research into the constituents of the date fruit has provided a scientific grounding for the nutritional benefits earlier societies discovered through eating the flesh. These studies have shown date fruit to be a good source of dietary fibre and important minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, copper, calcium and iron.
Importantly, the studies have also validated traditional knowledge about the energy content of date fruits. Carbohydrates can account for more than 70% of date fruits, depending on the variety and where it is grown. This explains why the date fruit found favor with ancient travellers and also suggests the flesh can serve as a substrate in the production of sugars.
Extracting natural sugars from date fruit
Naturalia Ingredients has combined knowledge of the carbohydrate content of date fruits with its experience of extracting and crystallizing sugars from grapes to introduce a new natural sweetener.
Working out of facilities on the Italian island of Sicily, Naturalia Ingredients established itself in the natural sugars market through its work on grapes. The company uses a chromatographic process that separates liquid glucose and fructose syrups from concentrated and deionized grape juice. The last step in the process crystallizes fructose and dextrose to create solid natural sweeteners.
The result is non-genetically modified organism (GMO) derived sweeteners of fully-natural origin that are naturally free from allergens and gluten: CrystalFructoGrape, CrystalDextroGrape and their mix CrystalGrapeSugar.
Naturalia Ingredients has applied a similar process to date fruits. The sugars are not modified by the process, nor is radiation used. Both materials and the product obtained are non-GMO. The product, CrystalDateSugar, comes from the same sugars that are found naturally in date fruits.
This process sets CrystalDateSugar, as well as CrystalGrape sugars, apart from “traditional” crystalline glucose and fructose sugars. Many of these traditional products are obtained from starchy cereals, not fruit. Working with corn or sugarcane is easier than extracting sugars from fruits but Naturalia Ingredients thinks consumers’ demands for products that fit their definition of “natural” and taste good will justify its way of working.
These are top priorities for a growing number of consumers.
“The strong interest in more options free of artificial elements, as well as similarly strong regard for options that avoid high-fructose corn syrup and genetic modification, suggests that consumers’ true aim is to find options that are “real” and natural,” Billy Roberts, senior analyst, food and drink at market research group Mintel, said.
Industrial and artisanal manufacturers that use Naturalia Ingredients’ CrystalDateSugar can promote their products as being of 100% natural, fruit-based origin and as GMO, allergen and gluten free. Naturalia Ingredients can back up these claims with characteristic isotopic ratio data showing CrystalDateSugar is distinct from products derived from maize and sugarcane. The product is also fully traceable.
Creating the optimal sensory profile
These attributes are important differentiators for food and beverage companies in 2017. In the end though, consumers will only keep buying a product if it has pleasant sensory attributes. The taste of the product is obviously critical. Texture and appearance are also very important, particularly for some types of product.
Naturalia Ingredients has designed its product to meet manufacturer and consumer expectations of these attributes. The result is a product Naturalia Ingredients thinks has the optimal blend of sweetness intensity and persistence, without the aftertaste that marrs some sweeteners. Naturalia Ingredients describes the flavor and odor as slightly fruity, a characteristic that enables the product to bring out the natural sensory properties of fruit-based products.
The belief CrystalDateSugar can enhance fruit-based products has led Naturalia Ingredients to position its date sugar for use in jams. Naturalia Ingredients thinks CrystalDateSugar is equally well suited to use in ice cream, yogurt, candies, cookies, beverages, energy drinks and food supplements.
This belief rests on the taste of CrystalDateSugar and the other sensory properties it imparts to products. Naturalia Ingredients has designed its crystal date sugar to improve the structure and functionality of food and beverages, for example by making ice cream smoother and enhancing the golden brown exteriors of baked goods.
CrystalDateSugar is also designed to deliver benefits that are invisible to consumers. Food and drink companies that work with the product benefit from its microbiological stability and its effect on oxidative degradation. This effect derives from the complementary properties of fructose and dextrose, including their ability to reduce moisture loss. These properties help to stabilize easily oxidizable substances and colors.
Dextrose and fructose also work harmoniously after they are consumed, with the former delivering a quick hit of energy and the latter releasing energy over a longer period of time.
Expanding access to natural sugars
Naturalia Ingredients is making its CrystalDateSugar available in North America through partner and fellow Italian company Faravelli Group, specifically its US subsidiary Faravelli Inc. Faravelli has distributed ingredients since 1926 but only moved into the US market in 2014. Today, Faravelli serves the country’s food and nutraceutical sectors from its office in Decatur, Georgia.
Faravelli’s collaboration with Naturalia Ingredients is part of a broader strategy to bring the best of Italian heritage and innovation to customers in North America in the form of high-value ingredients such as CrystalDateSugar.
Through this strategy, Faravelli is helping US food and beverage companies meet customer demand for pleasant-tasting, natural, GMO-free products.
1. Tengberg, M. Beginnings and early history of date palm garden cultivation in the Middle East. J. Arid Environ. 86, 139–147 (2012).
2. FAOSTAT. Available at: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/?#data/QC. (Accessed: 31st October 2017)